I had a very different New Year’s for 2020. You know the typical New Year’s—flashing lights, glittering displays of gold and silver, a steady stream of booze, and of course, the company of reveling friends and family. Instead, the lights were replaced with the striking orange streaming from the sunset at a punctual 9:36pm. The glittering displays became the alpine glow reflecting off pristine snow-topped mountains and the vast stretch of ocean. A steady stream of fog rolled in across the horizon of mountains; the lapping waves laughed with a thunderous timbre, while the wind cheered and sighed with the ebb and flow of the festivities. It was our first sighting of land officially part of Antarctica, the South Orkney Islands .
Antarctica is a place that is frequently misrepresented, whether as a land of mythical animals or a setting for fantastical sci-fi horrors, because its true essence can never be fulled captured in media representations. A place explored by a few great adventurers of the past, like Earnest Shackleton , with extremely limited resources (resulting in innovations like hammering nails into the bottom of boots to mimic modern crampons ) in the pure pursuit of the science of discovery and the present working for the preservation of the natural wonders of the earth. A place exploited for profit and fun by scores of inventive entrepreneurs resulting in the callous slaughter of whales, seals, penguins, and other creatures. A place where the worst of human vices and the best of virtues have become realized through the sweat and blood of human toil.
Exploration—the relinquishing of the old for something new and unknown. Why do we explore? What drives us to leave behind cozy homes, comfortable routines, and familiar lands, foods, and faces to seek out the new and unknown? And why does this drive lead some to work tirelessly for a mission that ultimately creates a better world for others and some to work almost solely for personal enrichment?
As I reflect upon 2019, I see a flood of learnings, surprises, and, above all, changes. From graduating university and a summer of traveling and teaching ESL while exploring my heritage to the beginning of a daunting new chapter with full-time employment and exploring what it means to “adult.” I’ve dove head-first into new experiences and struggled with imposter syndrome; I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone in the name of discovery and shied away from other challenges in fear of my perception. I had to quickly evolve from jumping to worry from one deadline to the next at school to a completely free schedule traveling in Asia to having a relatively stable workday in my new employment. At each turn, I’ve had expectations exceeded or completely flipped on their head, leaving me panting to keep up with the pace of change. All that said, it’s been incredibly exciting and rewarding—a year of accelerated learning, adapting from the old to the new, and stumbling through the good and the bad.
This dichotomy between the familiar and the new has always fascinated me. As a child, I had a very different view of exploration. Instead of seeing a mountain practically begging to be climbed, I saw a foreboding, impassable wall. A bright yellow danger sign pushed me away. Now, however, I frequently seek out that Thrill—the rush of endorphins upon reaching the summit at the end of a long hike into the unknown. My innate propensity for trying new things has increased dramatically since that time after years of forced training, and it has lead me to try things I would’ve never dreamt of in the past: from traveling alone in a foreign country and leading a large organization to cultivating unfamiliar hobbies like dance and crafting a greater understanding of self. I’ve done a lot of doing in the past year.
But all that doing has been preceded by lots of thinking—where should I be spending my time; will I really survive traveling on my own? What is the right balance of thinking or doing, of analysis or actions? It’s also a main part of the reason why doing has always been difficult for me. I tend to overanalyze, overthink. I default to hesitating before acting until I’ve grown comfortable with an environment. In a proper dosage, this is laudable: considering one’s actions before undertaking them, especially when they have significant downstream effects on others, is even more essential. The problem is I often do it out of the wrong reasons because it’s the easy thing to do and not because I’m considering the consequences. It’s easy to ignore that flicker of confusion that crosses your mind during an explanation and reassure yourself that you can figure it out on your own later; it’s much harder to deliberately interrupt the flow to clarify something, even if that something turns out to have also confused everyone else. Besides using the wrong reasons, the whole notion of exploration is about taking the leap of faith into the unknown. You have to race towards the limits of discovery before the window of opportunity closes, pushing through the clouds of fear and doubt closing in on the hole.
Shackleton, our friendly explorer from earlier, understood this fact well. Judging Shackleton purely by the results of his expeditions compared to his goals, he was a complete failure: he turned back long before reaching the South Pole in his first journey and lost his entire ship to the ice in his second expedition long before even reaching the Antarctic continent. However, in these times of crisis, Shackleton wasted no time in abandoning his original goal and changing priorities in service of his unwavering commitment to his men. Faced with the decision to make history and reach the South Pole but risk losing crewmates in the journey back due to a food shortage, Shackleton quickly committed to returning, remarking in his journal to his wife “better to be a live donkey than a dead lion.” When their ship, ~the Endurance~, was trapped in sheets of sea ice leaving them drifting on ice in the open ocean, Shackleton shifted to survival mode, abandoning scientific instruments in favor of survival essentials, like a crewmate’s banjo, and undertaking a daring voyage across open sea in a 20-foot lifeboat to bring help to those left behind. Shackleton had a good sense of how to balance thinking and preparation with action, depending on what the context called for.
While I’ve made progress on both fronts in the past year, both forcing myself to do a lot that has made me uncomfortable and think in a more structured and systematic way, I still struggle with jumping into action. I have to consciously muster an effort to coerce my body to undertake new efforts and chart unmapped territory. This results in a constant mental tax, levied with an iron fist against my daily supply of willpower. At worst, this is unsustainable and at best, terribly inefficient. Sometimes, this mental block is useful—it prevents sudden outbursts of emotion and gives me a buffer time to “undo send” in tenuous situations. More often than not, it creates unnecessary friction, wasting precious kinetic energy and momentum.
So although at a macro level I’ve done a pretty good job of doing in the past year, I’ve still yet to progress much on the micro level. Frequently, I still have a voice in my head that holds me back from immediately striking up a conversation with a new person, prying into a part of a friend’s personal life I’m curious about, or asking a still-forming question in a packed meeting room. What if you’re just bothering them, what if they don’t want to talk about it, what if I ask a stupid question? For some reason, I assume the worst when I’m the one taking the action, but I give the benefit of the doubt when other people do so, even if the conversation starter is a bit forced, the transition to a more personal topic a bit awkward, the question a bit stream of consciousness-y.
In the new year, I find myself seeking to redistribute my focus; I want to continue to exploit my experience in thinking but also focus more effort into exploring more with doing to shift my natural tendency closer to the equilibrium. I want to change those micro choices and make the unnatural choice to do instead of think more, whether it’s having more real conversations with the workers at that café I always go to or increasingly digging past the niceties to deeper topics with friends. That isn’t to say I won’t think (now, that would be truly thoughtless), just spend more of my time actually doing, experimenting, and exploring. To me, we explore to find what could be, to siphon fuel from real-life discoveries for our imaginary dreams, to stubbornly believe in there always being a brighter future.
And so I choose to constantly leave my comfort zone and change for exploration’s sake. I’m going to start with the goal of having a conversation with a stranger (or more generally, anybody I don’t already feel comfortable with) every day. And in doing so, maybe I’ll be able to catch a bit of the magical affliction that propelled Shackleton forward:
It is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.*
As for why this drive leads some to do good and some to do bad, I don’t have a satisfiable answer yet. What compels humans to do certain things is a large black box with millions of variables, and I don’t believe there’s a simple phenomenon that can explain all the intricacies away (if you find one let me know!). What I do know is that I want to use the sweat of my toil to empower people to affect positive change in their communities and lives, and it starts with empowering myself to be decisive when it counts. To act for what is right in the moment, instead of standing on the sidelines pondering my next step.